Port Orchard Police say crime increased in 2020

… but COVID pandemic skewed figures from previous year

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD — Port Orchard experienced a 7.4% increase in crime during 2020 — the year the pandemic started — with the largest increases coming in property crimes, including fraud and car thefts.

Meanwhile, crimes against individuals decreased, according to new end-of-year crime statistics released by the Port Orchard Police Department.

“The increase is not as concerning as it may have been in other years because we know what some of the issues were,” Chief Matt Brown said.

Most of the issues the police chief referred to are tied to the ripple effect of the pandemic.

Fraud cases saw the largest year-over-year increase at nearly 130%. Fraud reports climbed to 62 last year from 27 in 2019, a trend also seen across the state, according to the annual crime report.

“The increase is likely related to unemployment fraud. When the state released unemployment funds related to COVID early in 2020, there was a large number of international frauds that occurred. This was from organized crime that was coming from out of the country.

“If you live in Port Orchard and your unemployment benefits were stolen by someone in Nigeria, that comes up in our stats,” the chief explained.

Car thefts increased 60.5% in 2020. There were 69 such thefts last year compared to 43 in 2019.

The chief attributed the rise in motor vehicle thefts to the fact that two local car dealerships were victimized.

“We had some dealerships get hit several times by an organized group out of town,” he said, explaining that thieves often break into the dealership’s office and steal the car keys.

In those instances, Port Orchard officers worked with other law enforcement agencies and arrests were made, the chief added.

Burglaries saw a 38.7% jump in the city. Last year, 104 break-ins were registered, compared with 75 in 2019. Brown described these offenses as “crimes of opportunity.”

“Service workers, government workers and health care workers still had to work [during the shutdown]. When you have a large section of the population stuck in their homes, you can very easily tell when people are at work and not in their homes,” Brown noted.

The chief could not say whether the rise in burglaries represents a trend or was an offshoot of the pandemic.

Drug arrests were down almost 38% as narcotic incidents dipped to 49 last year from 78 in 2019.

As with several categories of crimes, the reason there were fewer drug cases is tied to the COVID pandemic. Port Orchard officers were told to make fewer vehicle stops to reduce face-to-face contacts during the outbreak, Brown said.

Drug arrests often result from car stops, the chief said. “You pull a guy over. He has a warrant, so you have him step outside of the car and search him [following the arrest]. You find a baggie in his pocket or drug paraphernalia. Because we weren’t doing as many stops, drug cases are going to do down.

“There were a lot of unknowns about COVID in 2020, so we said we were not stopping cars if there is a risk of contracting a deadly infectious disease unless it involved public safety,” he said.

The way the vehicle stop policy played out most of last year was that if a driver was barreling down Bay Street going 60 miles per hour, public safety was involved and a stop would be initiated. Otherwise, a stop would not likely take place involving a vehicle with expired license tabs, he explained.

DUI arrests were down last year – 10 were recorded last year as compared to 24 in 2019, according to the report.

“A lot of bars were closed. People were staying home. If you were at home and you wanted to drink, normally you would not be going anywhere,” he noted. “I would expect that number to start ticking up this year.”

Violations of no contact/protection orders were down 11%: 55 in 2020 compared to 62 in 2019.

“A professional guess is that when we were all on lockdown, it may be possible that people called in domestic violence issues less frequently because there weren’t many options [to go elsewhere],” Brown said.

When looking at 2020 crime rate statistics (displayed on the department’s website under “annual reports”), the police chief stressed that it is important to pay attention to the number of incident reports rather than just relying on the percentages of increases or decreases of a particular crime. Focusing on percentages can lead to wrong impressions, he cautioned.

For example, the report indicated rapes in the city were up 33%. But the statistics revealed there were eight cases in 2020 compared to six in 2019. “As tragic as those [incidents] are, it doesn’t indicate to us there is a trend of this increasing,” he said.

On the flip side, statutory rapes were down 50% but there was only a single incident last year and two the previous year. Aggravated assaults were down 8.3%, which represented only four fewer incidents between 2020 and the prior year.

Comparisons to other cities

A standard way to compare the prevalence of crime in different communities is to examine the number of crimes per 1,000 people in those areas.

In Port Orchard, the crime rate in 2020 per 1,000 was 86.9. This was higher than some other Kitsap County cities such as Bainbridge Island, which ranked 33.3, and Poulsbo with 51.9. Meanwhile, Bremerton’s per 1,000 rate was higher at 99.5.

The different rates among cities are tied to the characteristics of each town, the chief said.

“[Port Orchard has] a number of box stores that just by their nature, there are property crimes related to them. We have Highway 16 that runs through here so that brings a larger volume of traffic through Port Orchard. We also have the jail, so crimes that occur in the jail come to us. You also have a criminal population that when they get out of jail they are in Port Orchard, so they may commit crimes here after getting released,” he said.

When comparing Port Orchard’s crime stats against state averages — Port Orchard’s 7.4% increase in crime in 2019 was close to the state’s average increase of 7.1%, according to the city report.

Crimes against property locally were up by 14%, nearly matching the state’s average increase of 13.6%. Crimes against persons remained nearly the same in the city, compared to a reduction statewide of 4.7%. Meanwhile, crimes against society (such as drug offenses) were down 33% locally and 3.6% lower across the Evergreen State.